The first order of business at a recent happy-hour gathering of the informal Rethinking New Orleans group was to define "charette." The discussion began well past the 6 p.m. scheduled start, after the 13 attendees arrived on foot, by bicycle, Vespa and luxury sedan and greeted one another this Friday night in mid-November on the front porch of host Blake Haney's office on Thalia Street.
"Charette" is French for cart, with the connotation coming from several centuries ago when architecture students at Ecole des Beaux Arts would huddle in a cart carrying them through Parisian streets and to final exams. The idea of a frenzied preparation shared between talented and determined minds, under pressure of a tight deadline, is one Rethinking New Orleans participants feel they can relate to in post-Katrina New Orleans.
The charette hosted by Haney, 30, at Whence: The Studio, the office for his graphic design and communications business, worked toward a solution nothing short of rebuilding a better New Orleans. Haney had been involved in grassroots-level activism for two years before Katrina via his group New Breed New Orleans. New Breed New Orleans held regular gatherings at Twiropa Mills to spark dialogue in the community. "We held nine meetings over two years, covering everything from women's health issues to the Patriot Act to community involvement in the local media," Haney says.
While Haney's pre-Katrina efforts were not created with tangible results in mind, the situation in New Orleans in the dark months following Katrina demanded action. And results.
Discussion between Rethinking New Orleans members began casually, with ideas bantered about with increasing passion during the three-hour session. The voices grew louder in direct proportion to the pace of wine bottles emptying. Racial issues sat amidst the all-white crowd like the proverbial ghost at the banquet. The group decided early in the process to focus its energy on Central City, both because of the need to focus their efforts and the notion that the historic neighborhood serves as a still-standing microcosm of New Orleans' strengths and weaknesses. The idea of making that entire section of the city into a massive public park, on the scale of Central Park, was tossed about. "Before the storm, people didn't go into Central City; people didn't invest there," says architect John Bennett.
Steven Bingler and Claudia Kent, two members of Rethinking New Orleans from the architecture and community-planning firm Concordia, dispute Bennett's contention. "There is a strong culture in Central City that is not going to give up what it has," Kent, senior associate at Concordia, says. "The answer needs to come from the people that live there."
"We need to work from a bottom-up model," adds Bingler, Concordia's founder. Bingler, a member of the Cultural Committee of Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission, voices a holistic rebuilding concept that parallels his company's mission as stated on its Web site, www.concordia.com: "We implement our work through an integrative and participatory process that addresses physical, cultural, social, educational, organizational and economic assets and needs."
One of the few non-architects in the room, Tyler Willis, 19, was surfing in Portugal when Katrina struck. Thoughts about how he could help would not leave his head, Willis recalls, and he was prompted to action after being challenged via email by an ex-girlfriend, who asked him, "If you have all these ideas, why don't you go there and do something with them?"
A friend forwarded to Willis an email invitation explaining Rethinking New Orleans. "I didn't know what to expect, I was worried it wasn't even going to be worth the bike ride," he says a week after the meeting. "But I was impressed by the knowledge everyone brought. It wasn't just a bunch of people bitching and getting drunk."
Willis was most impressed, he says, with the ideas for preserving the city's distinct neighborhoods and the culture of each. A native of California, Willis is enjoying his transition to life in post-Katrina New Orleans. "The atmosphere seems a lot different from what I hear it used to be, with lots of negativity and [an] almost fatalistic approach to things," he says. "But I've experienced none of that. The energy I feel here now is positive."
Grassroots groups like Rethinking New Orleans are sprouting up all across metro New Orleans, with varied goals and plans but with a shared purpose: to create a city rebuilt on progressive ideals that stand in stark contrast to the results of a political system that has guided New Orleans -- for better or worse -- for nearly 300 years.
Yet, positive energy, fresh ideas and happy-hour brainstorming sessions alone cannot lay the foundation for a new New Orleans. A common criticism of grassroots-level activism is its inability to find a unified voice and vision that command attention from the powers that be and become a reality. Haney realizes this challenge.
"Right now, there's a lot of talk," Haney says a month after the mid-November meeting. "But there needs to be a lot more action."
Communication is the most important tool for harnessing the impressive spirit of activists working in post-Katrina New Orleans, Haney says. "I'm not a professional activist, but I can say that right now there is a lot more urgency for all these different groups to coordinate with each other. Everyone right now wants to be involved, which, obviously, is great. But there are so many committees, so many groups, and each has its own Web site, e-letters. Talk is cheap. Getting all this talk into action, that's an issue."
But there is no denying the impressive amount of activism right now in New Orleans, for centuries a famously carefree city that now must reinvent itself. Some have even called New Orleans the first American city of the 21st century. "People here are asking a lot more, and better, questions," Haney says. "That's probably because people are a lot more pissed off right now."
It would be impossible to list all the grassroots groups currently operating in the metro area, and even more difficult to define every goal. But it's easy to draw inspiration from the genuine do-it-yourself efforts, from simple means such as the sale of the "Make Levees Not War" T-shirts at shops like Metro Three to established groups working toward sustainable economic development and improved schools.
There are countless examples of this spirit. The all-volunteer Friends of the Frontline formed as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in an effort to raise $2 million to help the estimated 2,000 police officers, sheriff's deputies, emergency-response workers and similar public servants that lost their homes to Katrina. "We're going to fight and stay and help each other," says Dennis Pasentine, founder of Friends of the Frontline and owner of New Orleans-based Florida Marine Transporters. The group held a mini-festival with local bands and cuisine as a fundraiser in Mandeville last month and has already collected more than $250,000 in donations, according to published reports. The group accepts donations and announces updates on its Web site, www.friendsofthefrontline.com.
The fleur-de-lis-sporting Desire NOLA (www.desirenola.org) has started generating funds with T-shirt sales. Through its Web site, the group also offers information on business openings, Katrina-related legislation in Congress, job fairs and more.
The Idea Village (www.ideavillage.org), which before Katrina primarily dealt with encouraging entrepreneurial endeavors, recently announced $50,000 in grants to more than 40 local musicians and artists affected by Katrina, with the condition that each artist worked in the area for the previous five years and will perform or show in the area within the next five months. That sum is just part of The Idea Village's ongoing grants program. The group partners with local and national foundations and totals grants in the hundreds of thousands of dollars since Katrina.
Multi-disciplinary arts group Mondo Bizarro Productions established The I-10 Witness Project (www.i10witness.org) to catalogue the oral histories of local residents recalling their Katrina stories.
While those groups have been formed by locals, there is no denying the tremendous impact that volunteers from across America have had on the effort to rebuild New Orleans. Food Not Bombs started as an outreach of the nuclear-protest movement in the late 1970s and '80s. The all-volunteer group is dedicated to nonviolence and eliminating poverty. Following Katrina, Food Not Bombs set up a food tent in Washington Square in Faubourg Marigny, joining in on the Welcome Home Kitchen collective that also included Rainbow Family of Living Light and Barefoot Doctors to serve and otherwise aid hungry residents. Complaints from neighbors about late-night noise and permit issues forced the group from the park -- though many in the group said they were about ready to leave anyway. Undaunted, Food Not Bombs organizers plan to establish food-distribution centers across the devastated region, and they already have set up one in St. Bernard Parish following their Marigny exodus. The group, also active in West Africa, still solicits volunteers and donations of clothing and food on its Web site, www.foodnotbombs.net, in preparation for extended operations in this area.
Food Not Bombs has worked closely with members of Common Ground, a group that started operations in the Algiers home of local Green Party leader, former City Council candidate and longtime activist Malik Rahim, who has announced plans to run for mayor of New Orleans in 2006. Currently, Common Ground has 200 volunteers on the ground in the area, according to spokesman Sakura KonŽ. The group first got noticed when it helped organize a march over the Crescent City Connection to show solidarity with Orleans Parish residents who fled East Bank floodwaters and were forcibly turned back by Gretna police. "We wanted to challenge the Gretna police to try and stop us," KonŽ says. "They didn't."
However, KonŽ and other Common Ground volunteers say the march started a series of arrests by New Orleans police that they describe as unjust harassment. Calls to NOPD for comment on the arrests were not returned. Common Ground initially was a spontaneous operation in Algiers that offered food, medical care, ice, water and other basic needs. But now the group has distribution centers in six locations across southeast Louisiana. It plans to establish a permanent presence here with Rebuild Green, a volunteer effort to plant community gardens, lift houses above flood levels and sponsor reconstruction that is environmentally friendly and uses alternative energy sources.
Responding to a rumor that liberal icon Michael Moore donated $1 million to the group, KonŽ is incredulous. "Are you serious?" he asks. "Man, we're struggling to do what we do. But we're going to stay here and rebuild it right."
Plenty of individuals in New Orleans provide inspiration as well.
"I'm nobody special," says Butler Ives. "I'm just a guy that's been sneaking into Tip's since I was 13."
An amateur musician and professional roofer, Ives' post-storm efforts through the 504 Musicians Fund he founded are an example of some of the positive, life-changing effects of Katrina. The 504 Musicians Fund (www.504musiciansfund.org) seeks to raise money, primarily through the sale of T-shirts, to provide financial assistance directly to New Orleans musicians and their families affected by Katrina.
When asked why he became involved, Ives replies, "Because I love music. This storm hurt a lot of musicians. I don't want to name names, but these musicians that played their hearts out for us on a weekly basis, they got screwed. They didn't have any money before, and now they have no homes to boot. They're famous to us, but it's not like they're making a million dollars.
"They need help," Ives says, "and we need them back to keep the city's soul alive, because that's what the musicians here are -- they are the soul of the city."
Like many New Orleanians, Ives lost his job following Katrina. His employer is shifting operations to Birmingham, Ala., and Ives figures he'll have to take a 60 to 70 percent pay cut to stay here and continue his efforts. But, because the timing is right and the need is paramount, Ives says he'll stay.
"Obviously, none of this would have happened without Katrina," Ives says. "I wouldn't have the excuse to have a meeting with Blaine Kern. I wouldn't have a reason to call Robin Williams. But, I have to be here. I have to be doing this."
Yet, individuals and groups face problems of fatigue, burnout and depression as they work toward what often feels like the insurmountable task of rebuilding New Orleans -- that, plus the threat that the city will return to its stagnant status quo and its politics as usual.
Performance artist Kathy Randels now walks the streets of devastated neighborhoods in her work for Catholic Charities to help citizens reconnect with services and resources they need. Randels has been involved in the rebuilding effort in numerous ways, including attending meetings of the Bring New Orleans Back Bommission's Cultural Committee. She labeled the committee meetings she attended as "frustrating."
"There were a lot of people that needed to be included in the meetings that weren't invited," Randels says, adding there was a particular concern of committee chairman Cesar Burgos about the lack of minority representation, especially for treasured African-American traditions of second-line parade groups and Mardi Gras Indians.
Randels added that complaints took up valuable time during the meetings, and that perhaps smaller groups would produce better results.
Many activists fear that the overwhelming number of groups operating in the city today will create too much confusion over what to do, and in the end accomplish nothing. Veteran local activist group The Urban Conservancy (www.urbanconservancy.org) was already effective pre-Katrina by creating campaigns for safe bicycling routes and supporting the local economy with its "Stay Local" commerce and shopping concept. In an essay posted on its Web site Nov. 16, The Urban Conservancy outlined how the activist community can best implement lasting changes post-Katrina. The essay "We Need One Voice" concludes with this paragraph:
"There is much work to be done to rebuild our communities. We think it would be great to expend our energy implementing a vision rather than fighting the same old fights. And it is certainly time to combine these competing commissions into one inclusive body that operates under the guiding principles of transparency, accountability and responsibility to all the people of New Orleans, rather than one group at the expense of the other. There will be hard decisions to be made. But we think the first step in the recovery is acknowledging the hard facts and then speaking and acting as one community."
Despite concerns about a lack of cohesion among the far-flung grassroots groups and their varied approaches to rebuilding New Orleans, activists are making inroads, holding meetings, generating new ideas and sustaining the passion that propelled them to action in the first place.
Tyler Willis created a Web site, www.projectneworleans.info, that includes information on an online math tutoring program, hotmath.com, that he says has great results in helping students. Citing education as critical to rebuilding what Willis labels the "New City of Hope," he has started lobbying local school officials on behalf of the program. He says he has gotten good responses, especially from the proposed charter schools.
Butler Ives earned a spot on the planning committee led by Blaine Kern for a proposed mini-Mardi Gras event scheduled for early April. Called "Cultural Gumbo," the event will feature local music, cuisine and attractions such as a Ferris wheel. No admission will be charged, Ives says. He wants to make Cultural Gumbo "a free festival to bring the whole city together." He also vows to lobby musicians such as Jimmy Buffett and comedians including Robin Williams to perform benefit shows in the city.
Kathy Randels, though frustrated by what she describes as a "leadership void" in the city, talks up an idea that she traces to Depression-era New Deal programs that encouraged the arts and supported artists. She wants to establish a multi-disciplinary arts installation in each city neighborhood to showcase its character and culture. Each project would be created by that area's artists, painters, writers, actors and performers, and it would work through neighborhood groups, churches and schools.
"Artists were low on the totem pole before the storm," Randels says. "But the arts are a way to jump-start our economy, and they're good for our collective health. We need something creative to work on, an outlet for something besides cleaning mold and dealing with insurance adjusters."
Most activists agree that the largest roadblock to their collective success is the two-fold problem of poor communication and coordination. Uptown artist, activist and former zookeeper Remy Lazare is lobbying the myriad groups she's involved with to establish a meeting time and place that will offer a large space for all the groups to meet every week. Blake Haney notes that many New Orleanians learned for the first time to rely on the Internet for communication during the days after Katrina. He now hopes to fully establish the Web site www.humidbeings.com.
"It's going to be a New Orleans-centric site, with everything from political blogs to word on social events," Haney says. "We're going to try and set up Humid Beings as a place for all these community groups to gather. It will be a New Orleans site built from the bottom up, like MoveOn.org. This model gives people a way to express their views to leaders of the city and state. MoveOn.org has shown how effective these online campaigns can be."
While it remains unknown if the goals of the various groups currently working in New Orleans will ever reach fruition, many activists note that it's remarkable that these ideas are even being heard in the first place. In post-Katrina New Orleans, it seems, fresh approaches and outside-the-box ideas finally have an audience. This paradigm shift is evident in the traction Concordia has gained in support of its small-schools concept.
Concordia's efforts to establish smaller, community-oriented schools have been lauded nationally. The local firm co-authored the report "Schools as Centers of Community" for the U.S. Dept. of Education. "It's our cause cŽlébre," says Rethinking New Orleans' Claudia Kent. The proposed neighborhood-based schools would stay open day and night and serve their areas in many ways beyond educating children. "I just can't tell you how excited we are about the prospect of these ideas finally being heard," Kent says. "What the mayor's commission is working on is the vision from 2,000 feet above.
"Hopefully, they'll really serve what people really need, which in this city ... is better jobs and better schools."